Vieques: Long March to People’s Victory

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Marc Becker

CARLOS HAS LIVED his entire life on the small Caribbean island of Vieques, but has never visited some of the gorgeous white-sand beaches that he has heard line the coast. For more than sixty years, most of the island was off limits to its ten thousand residents as the U.S. Navy occupied it for use as a practice bombing range.

After decades of non-violent protests, on May 1, 2003 the navy turned the land over to the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service to form the Caribbean’s largest wildlife refuge. This represents a partial but important victory for the island’s inhabitants, as well as thousands of other protesters who joined the struggle.

The navy acquired the fifty-one-square mile Vieques island in 1941, as an extension of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station on the main island of Puerto Rico, which lies across a narrow strait only six miles to the west. With World War II on the horizon, the military wished to develop a base like Pearl Harbor for its Atlantic fleet.

At the same time, the bottom had dropped out of Vieques’ traditional sugar cane market due to the development of beet sugar in the northern United States and overproduction in the insular regions supplying the U.S. market including Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Some wealthy landowners were happy to have an opportunity to unload their now unprofitable holdings. Others, like the Benitez and Eastern Sugar interests, who had hoped that the war would bring soaring sugar prices as it had in World War I, had their lands forcibly expropriated.

Caught in the middle were the poor sharecroppers and rural workers, who received no compensation and lost their livelihoods as the navy displaced them to a six-mile wide strip of land in the middle of the island. With few economic opportunities, Vieques became the poorest municipality in Puerto Rico with the colony’s highest unemployment and infant mortality rates.

Que se vaya la marina

Over the past sixty years, Vieques developed social conflicts typical for communities next to military bases, including problems with prostitution and drunken brawls. In 1953, sailors killed Juan Felipe Francis, an elderly Black shopkeeper who refused to sell them alcohol. Navy maneuvers disrupted fishing around the island, and noise from bombs and low-flying airports disturbed inhabitants.

The imperialist nature of the military’s occupation of Vieques quickly gave rise to popular sentiments against the navy’s presence and calls for them to leave. Plans in the 1960s to expropriate the entire island and expel the entire population led to a round of mass protests.

In the late 1970s, Vieques fishermen blocked military exercises that were disrupting their livelihood in what came to be known as the “fishing wars,” leading to dozens of arrests. One of these activists, Angel Rodriguez Cristobal, subsequently died in his prison cell in Tallahassee, Florida under conditions that have never been fully explained.

In 1993, a botched bombing exercise that dropped live ordnance close to civilian housing once again reignited protest. That same year, activists formed the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, which became the main vehicle to agitate against the bombing.

Mass Civil Disobedience Wins

The event that solidified sentiment both on the island and internationally against the navy occurred on April 19, 1999 when two off-target bombs destroyed an observation post, killing David Sanes Rodriguez, a civilian employee.

Incensed with the navy’s refusal to investigate the incident or punish those who killed Sanes, thousands of people committed acts of civil disobedience in an attempt to force an end to the bombing. Activists set up camps on the bombing range, effectively halting military exercises for over a year until federal agents evicted them on May 4, 2000.

Earlier that same year, tens of thousands of people flooded San Juan’s streets in the largest protest in Puerto Rico’s history to call for peace for Vieques.

Under pressure from these nonviolent protests, the navy agreed to leave Vieques on May 1, 2003. Thousands of people celebrated this victory in a series of events from May 1-4. Beginning on the evening of April 30, people congregated in a jubilant mood at the Justice and Peace Camp across the road from the main gate to Camp Garcia, the naval base.

Just before midnight, navy security left the gate and people broke through the fence and climbed on top of the navy checkpoint waving the flags of Vieques, Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rican Independence Party.

While on a stage outside the former base’s fence the municipal government held an official celebration with the participation of Puerto Rican governor Sila Calder<162>n and visiting dignitaries, others pounded at the concrete checkpoint building with a sledge hammer as if it were the Berlin Wall.

Activists tore down the fence surrounding the base, and “Free Vieques” graffiti appeared on the former naval installations. Jose Montanez Sanes, nephew of David Sanes whose death triggered this most recent round of protests, allegedly broke into the navy compound inside the base and drove several military vehicles that had just become property of the Fish and Wildlife Service to the front gate where they were overturned and burned.

A variety of commemorative events took place over the next several days — recognition ceremonies acknowledged those who committed civil disobedience to gain freedom for Vieques, a special mass of thanksgiving celebrated the peace, a car caravan paraded through previously closed areas of Vieques, a service commemorated the martyrs of the struggle including those who have died from cancer caused by the contamination of the island, and in the evenings people enjoyed concerts of protest music at the former base’s gate.

Messages were read from Israel Medina and Ismael Guadalupe Torres, the two civil disobedients who remained incarcerated for their actions. (On June 10, over a month after the navy left, Guadalupe — who had been arrested several times and imprisoned twice, and whose father Ismael Guadalupe Ortiz in 1979 was the first person arrested during protest actions on the island — was released from custody in San Juan to the cheers of his supporters.)

Activists also erected a giant white cross on the former bombing range in view of the observation post where the errant bomb had killed David Sanes four years earlier. Hundreds of people took advantage of the opportunity to visit the now liberated beaches that previously had been closed to civilians.

Vieques was not the first place where peaceful protests led to the military’s eviction from a bombing range. In 1971, similar protests stopped bombing on the neighboring island of Culebra, but at that time the navy simply shifted its exercises to Vieques.

In 1990, protests and political pressure led George Bush to stop military exercises on Hawaiian island of Kaho’olawe that had been used as a bombing range since 1953. In the Philippines, similar growing local opposition led to the closing of the Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Repair Facility. A movement in Colorado forced closure of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.

Rising protests on Vieques had previously forced the return of the Naval Ammunition Facility on the western part of the island in January 2000. The navy intends to use other sites, mostly in the southeastern United States, to continue its practice bombing, although it has already received resistance from local residents to those plans.

With a strong organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams director and longtime peace activist Gene Stultzfus estimates, any military base can be shut down in a period of five to twenty years. As Vieques demonstrates, such struggles are not won after a single action but require sustained protest.

Ni una bomba mas

Over the six decades of the navy’s bombing of Vieques, protests largely focused on the material damage to the island’s ecology, economy, and inhabitants. The navy used Vieques for a variety of military exercises that included ship-to-shore and air-to-ground target practice, rehearsal of amphibious landings, and the storage of ammunition.

Heavy bombing, including the use of napalm, armor-piercing depleted uranium shells and other experimental weapons, has left the island heavily polluted with arsenic, cyanide, lead, mercury, antimony, uranium and other toxins resulting in a cancer rate twenty-seven percent higher than the rest of Puerto Rico.

The military base provided little employment or other economic benefits to inhabitants. In fact, the navy paid no fees for the use of the island while at the same time making money by renting it out to allies for military exercises. In the end, the navy remained on Vieques not because it was necessary for the types of exercises they carried out but because it was convenient and cost effective.

Vieques played a key role in training U.S. forces for its post-World War II imperialist adventures. During the height of the Cold War, it was a testing ground for missiles and provided training of covert teams for a variety of missions.

Forces prepared on the island for the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz’s leftist government in Guatemala in 1954, the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation, the occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and the invasion of Grenada in 1983.

More recently, it has been used to ready troops for operations in the Balkans, Haiti, Iraq and Somalia. As a goodbye present, the navy scheduled a month of intensive bombing beginning in January of this year in preparation for Bush’s attack on Iraq.

Factors for Success

The day after the gate fell to Camp Garcia, now rebaptized “Zona Libre Primero de Mayo” (May First Free Zone), long-time activist Robert Rabin surveyed the scene from the Justice and Peace Camp across the road and observed how nice it was to see the fences gone. “I’m glad that the navy won’t be able to use Vieques again to kill innocent people in places like Iraq,” he stated.

This victory for the people of Vieques can be attributed to a variety of factors. One is that the local organizing group successfully included broad sectors of civil society in their protests.

These included religious, student and labor leaders, as well as political activists of diverse ideological stripes including those who favor independence, statehood, or a preservation of the current commonwealth status for Puerto Rico. (See Cesar Ayala, “Vieques Struggle Lives On,” ATC 87.)

The inclusive character of the struggle brought in many local opponents of the bombing who were neither anti-American nor ideologically opposed to the military. Like the majority of Puerto Ricans, most people on Vieques favor either statehood or a continuation of the current vaguely defined commonwealth status rather than independence for the colony.

The navy’s presence, however, had choked off any potential economic development on the island and with rising death rates most inhabitants came to demand that not one more bomb fall on Vieques. As many Central American militants came to see in the 1980s, theirs was a struggle not against the people of the United States but against the policies of the U.S. government.

Furthermore, local organizers built strong international networks that stretched from Vieques across the strait to the main island of Puerto Rico, to Puerto Rican communities in the United States and to international activists. To support their actions, they carefully cultivated allies and were ready to welcome new people and make them feel as if they were important to the struggle.

In addition, leaders repeatedly emphasized that this was a nonviolent struggle for the peace of Vieques. Ending the navy’s bombing became a shining example of the possibilities for nonviolent direct action to achieve political objectives. With love, as one activist noted, a struggle of the people can defeat the dragon.

Press reports, in an apparent attempt to portray the celebration in a negative light, focused on the burning of vehicles in the early hours of May 1 after the opening of the base. Most activists, however, denounced the burning of the vehicles as an isolated anomaly at odds with the movement’s nonviolent character. Others apologetically recognized the destruction as an emotional reaction to sixty years of occupation.

Even though the destroyed vehicles no longer belonged to the navy, it was federal property that represented for some the continued U.S. control and domination over the island. Governor Calderon announced her intent to prosecute acts of vandalism, but many activists agreed that it was hypocritical to prosecute these relatively insignificant actions while doing nothing about the much more deadly results of six decades of naval bombardments.

“If there is a desire to go after and judge those who have been violent in Vieques,” the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques said in a statement, “bring the pilot who killed David Sanes before the people of Vieques for judgement, and then the Admirals and other military officials responsible for the death and destruction to our island and people over decades.”

Hoy Vieques, manana Puerto Rico

One interpretation of the name “Vieques” is that it comes from an indigenous word for “little island.” This label emerged in slogans that activists brought with them from the main island: from the big island to the small island. This paternalistic positioning, however, has led some local inhabitants to view themselves as a colony of the colony.

Social movements rarely succeed without outside allies, and that is equally true in Vieques. Although the residents of Vieques (like all of Puerto Rico) are U.S. citizens, they cannot vote for president nor do they have any voice in Congress. It was perhaps this political subjugation that allowed the bombing to continue for so long.

Puerto Rican communities in the United States, however, brought visibility to this issue to the point that New York State Republican Governor George Pataki, perhaps seeking the Hispanic vote, visited Vieques and called for the navy’s withdrawal.

In the final stages of the civil disobedience campaign, the presence of high-profile protesters like Robert Kennedy, Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton brought a visibility necessary for the empire to respond to the colony’s demands.

Speaking on May 1 to a rally of thousands of people who marched the four kilometers from the port town of Isabel Segunda to the gates of Camp Garcia, Ruben Berrios Martinez, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, claimed that the history of Puerto Rico will be written as pre- and post-Vieques.

No empire, he stated, not even the United States, has given up privileges voluntarily. All of the military bases, Berrios urged, “must be recuperated for the economic and social development of Puerto Rico so that people can live from the wealth of their own land.”

He ended his talk with the slogan “Today Vieques, Tomorrow Puerto Rico.” Berros used Vieques as a platform to call for a solution to the colonial subjugation to the United States that Puerto Rico has experienced since being occupied in the aftermath of the 1898 war with Spain.

Puerto Rico is currently an Estado Libre Asociado (literally “Associated Free State,” but defined by the United States as “commonwealth”), which means that it is an “unincorporated territory” that “belongs to, but is not part of” the United States.

This leaves Puerto Rico subject to U.S. whims, and the residents of Vieques with no legal avenues to address the evils committed against them.

The nationalist tones of the protests and the extensive presence of Puerto Rican flags in the rally seem to prove what has often been observed about the colony: Although only a small percentage of Puerto Ricans favor independence, one does not need to scratch very deeply to find independentista sentiments.

Puerto Rican independence and socialist activists are by no means latecomers to Vieques. Rather, they are largely responsible for bringing broader attention to the protests, encouraging and giving them coherence.

In 1948, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, an early independence leader, strongly denounced the military occupation of Vieques. Many of the heros and martyrs of the struggle, such as Angel Rodriguez Cristobal who died in prison in 1979, were independence activists and socialists from the main island.

As Berrios noted, this struggle did not begin four years ago but was the culmination of a long fight. Evicting the navy from Vieques was an important step in the push to gain political independence for Puerto Rico. Vieques, Berrios noted, was “an example of the struggle we will pursue” for the freedom of all of Puerto Rico.

The military presence on Vieques, ironically, has helped unify and strengthen a Puerto Rican identity and helped revitalize the cause of independence. Vieques became an important part of the anti-colonial struggle.

La marina ya se fue

At the May 1 rally, celebrating cheers of victory that the navy had successfully been evicted replaced the long standard protest chants of “Out Navy.” There is a danger that with the navy now gone from Camp Garcia, international activists will move on to other concerns and ignore ongoing issues on Vieques.

Inhabitants of the island empha<->sized that ending the naval bombing was an important step, but not a final victory. Peace and justice, Rabin noted, entails more than just a cessation of the bombing.

Three years ago, the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques laid out four demands which they called the four Ds: demilitarization, decontamination, devolution, and development. None of these have been fully realized, and the most important struggles lie ahead to achieve these goals.

The navy has stopped the bombing, but a military presence still persists on Vieques. Most notable is a Relocatable Over The Horizon Radar (ROTHR) installation on the western part of the island, as well as a communications post on Mount Pirata, the island’s highest point, and stockpiles of old ordnance.

With the fading of the Cold War, the navy brought the ROTHR online in 1998 as part of a war on drugs in the Caribbean, but many cynics saw it as a desperate effort to search for a justification to remain on the island.

The electromagnetic radiation from the installation presents additional health hazards to local residents. In addition, sixty years of bombing including the use of napalm and depleted uranium has left the island heavily polluted, and it will take years and extensive resources to decontaminate it.

The military is the largest polluter in the United States, and activists press that the navy needs to take full responsibility for cleaning up unexploded ordnance and repairing damage to the island.

“The navy spent lots of money to bomb the island,” Robert Rabin stated. “Now they need to spend lots to clean it up.” Estimates for cleanup range as high as $450 billion, which represents one year of the Pentagon’s budget. “The struggle for decontamination will be harder than what we have seen so far,” said one activist.

May 1 initially appears to represent victory for the third goal (devolution, or return of the land), but rather than returning the land to the people, the navy handed it over to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The federal government will still have a large and heavy-handed presence on the island. Using the land as a nature preserve rather than for human inhabitation only requires a superficial cleaning, leading to fears that the military has no intent to clean up the mess.

The eastern target range in particular is saturated with heavy metals and chemicals, making it totally unfit for human presence (see

Many activists advocate returning the land (especially in the west, which was used as an ammunition dump and not as heavily polluted) to the sharecroppers from whom it was taken in the 1940s, or placing the land in a community trust. This is, in their minds, a human rights issue and underscores the fourth demand, which emphasizes the need for cooperative and sustainable development on what is a very poor island in an impoverished U.S. colony.

Activists emphasize that to be successful this effort requires broad community participation, and not just the involvement of politicians.

Ironically, many of the most bitter opponents of the navy’s bombing of Vieques also recognize the benefits which it brought. Unlike the surrounding islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix, Vieques has not been overrun with large-scale capital-driven tourism projects, leaving the island with the appearance of a much more pristine environment.

This presents both opportunities and challenges. Activists want to avoid land speculation and instead create a democracy that fosters sustainable development based on community needs. Rabin emphasized that since 1993 their committee has worked “for the rescue and development of Vieques.” One possibility some community members mention is to use Vieques as a laboratory for studying how to clean former military sites.

Decontamination of the bombing range could become part of the reconstruction, as it would provide an opportunity to create jobs, transfer technology, learn about new technologies, and develop the island in a sustainable manner. Base closings usually have a positive economic impact on surrounding communities, and local inhabitants are eager to realize that objective here.

One thing is clear, and that is that the struggle for Vieques is not over. As if to drive home this point, on June 25 FBI agents arrested twelve people whom they accused of conspiracy and destruction of federal property during the protests.

Ironically, one of those arrested was highly renowned Vieques leader Nilda Medina, who had taken the stage on May 1 to condemn the destruction because it was at odds with the peaceful nature of their struggle.

Political repression of those fighting for the liberation of Vieques continues. Ending the bombing was an important and historic victory, but it will take continued vigilance and international activism to achieve the ultimate goals.

Vieques still needs solidarity groups to lobby the White House, Congress, and the United Nations to assure that the navy complies with promises to clean the island. International activists continue to play an important role to bring a true and lasting peace to Vieques.

ATC 107, November-December 2003